The Problems Produced by the Polygamy of the Patriarchs

In the Book of Genesis, God’s plan for marriage is set forth poetically but clearly: one man and one woman in a stable, lasting, fruitful relationship of mutual support. God said, It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable helpmate for him (Gen 2:18). Note that the word used is “helpmate,” not “helpmates.” After teaching the man that animals are not suitable companions, God puts Adam in a deep sleep and, from his rib, fashions Eve (cf Gen 2:21). Note that in presenting a suitable helpmate for Adam God created a woman not another man; He also created one woman—not two, not three. So, we see that both homosexual marriage and polygamy are excluded.

Scripture goes on to insist that marriage is a lasting union, for it says that a man shall “cling” (Hebrew דָּבַק = dabaq) to his wife (not wives), and the two (not three or more) of them shall become one flesh (Gen 2:24). God then went on to tell them to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28).

Given the clear plan for marriage, what should we make of the polygamy of the patriarchs (e.g., Jacob, Moses, Gideon, David, and Solomon)? Does God really approve of this? There is no evidence that He thunders from on high at their seemingly adulterous and clearly polygamous behavior; in fact, it seems to go unrebuked. The fact that they have several wives is noted in Scripture more in passing, with little if any shock. For example, Nathan the Prophet rebukes David for many things, but having multiple wives is not among them.

Let’s begin by noting that the Scriptures teach in various ways: there is direct rebuke and punishment described, but there is also subtle instruction through stories. This is the way in which the Scriptures teach against polygamy. Through various stories we learn that polygamy causes nothing but trouble: factions, jealousy, envy, and even murder. The problem was not so much the multiple wives as it was the sons they bore.

Polygamy was common among the Old Testament patriarchs. Here is a “brief” list:

1.  Lamech (a descendant of Cain) had two wives (Genesis 4:19).
2.  Abraham had more than one wife (Genesis 16:3-4, 25:6 (some were called concubines)).
3.  Nahor (Abraham’s brother) had both a wife and a concubine (Genesis 11:29, 22:20-24).
4.  Jacob was tricked into polygamy (Genesis 29:20-30) and later received two additional wives bringing the grand total of four wives (Genesis 30:4, 9).
5.  Esau took a third wife to please his father Isaac (Genesis 28:6-9).
6.  Ashur had two wives (1 Chronicles 4:5).
7.  Obadiah, Joel, Isshiah, and those with them had multiple wives (1 Chronicles 7:3-4).
8.  Shaharaim had at least four wives, two of whom he “sent away” (1 Chronicles 8:8-11).
9.  Caleb had two wives (1 Chronicles 2:18) and two concubines (1 Chronicles 2:46, 48).
10.  Gideon had many wives (Judges 8:30).
11.  Elkanah is recorded as having two wives, one of whom was the godly woman Hannah (1 Samuel 1:1-2, 8-2:10).
12.  David had at least 8 wives and 10 concubines (1 Chronicles 1:1-9; 2 Samuel 6:23, 20:3).
13.  Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:1-6).
14.  Rehoboam had eighteen wives and sixty concubines (2 Chronicles 11:21) and sought many wives for his sons (1 Chronicles 11:23).
15.  Abijah had fourteen wives (2 Chronicles 13:21).
16.  Ahab had more than one wife (1 Kings 20:7).
17.  Jehoram had multiple wives (2 Chronicles 21:17).
18.  Jehoiada the priest gave king Joash two wives (2 Chronicles 24:1-3).
19.  Jehoiachin had more than one wife (2 Kings 24:15).

Clearly, polygamy—at least among wealthy and powerful men—was common and brought little condemnation from God or His prophets.

The silence of God does not connote approval, however. Just because something is mentioned in the Bible does not mean that it is approved. For example, God permitted divorce because of the hard hearts of the people (cf Matt 19:8), but to permit reluctantly is not to endorse or be pleased.

Polygamy, whenever prominently dealt with in Scripture (i.e., mentioned more than just noted in passing), always spelled trouble with a capital T!

Consider some of the following internecine conflicts and tragedies:

Jacob had four wives whom he clearly loved unequally: Leah (whom he considered unattractive and felt himself “stuck with”), Rachel (his first love), Bilnah (Rachel’s maid), and Zilpah (Leah’s maid). Leah bore him six sons and a daughter: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulan, and Dinah. Rachel was infertile for many years, but finally gave birth to Joseph and later Benjamin. Bilnah bore him Naphtali and Dan, while Zilpah bore him Gad and Asher.

All these sons by different mothers created tension, the greatest of which surrounded Joseph, whose brothers grew jealous and began to hate him, for their father, Jacob, favored Joseph as Rachel’s son. The brothers hatched a plot to kill Joseph, but due to a combination of their desire for monetary gain and the intervention of Reuben, he was instead sold into slavery. At the root of this sad story of this bitter conflict was a polygamous mess. The clear teaching (among others) is this: Don’t do polygamy.

Gideon had many wives and by them many sons. Scripture tells the story of violence and death that resulted from this situation, with the sons all competing for kingship and heritage.

Now Gideon had seventy sons, his direct descendants, for he had many wives. His concubine who lived in Shechem also bore him a son, whom he named Abimelech. At a good old age Gideon, son of Joash, died and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash in Ophrah of the Abiezrites. Abimelech, son of Jerubbaal (i.e., Gideon), went to his mother’s kinsmen in Shechem, and said to them and to the whole clan to which his mother’s family belonged, “Put this question to all the citizens of Shechem: ‘Which is better for you: that seventy men, or all Jerubbaal’s sons, rule over you, or that one man rule over you?’ You must remember that I am your own flesh and bone.” When his mother’s kin repeated these words to them on his behalf, all the citizens of Shechem sympathized with Abimelech, thinking, “He is our kinsman.” They also gave him seventy silver shekels from the temple of Baal of Berith, with which Abimelech hired shiftless men and ruffians as his followers. He then went to his ancestral house in Ophrah, and slew his brothers, the seventy sons of Jerubbaal (Gideon), on one stone. Only the youngest son of Jerubbaal, Jotham, escaped, for he was hidden (Judges 9:1-5).

At the heart of this murderous conflict was polygamy. The sons competed for kingship, power, and inheritance. They had little love for one another because they had different mothers. Abimelech’s loyalty was not to his half-brothers but to his mother and her clan; he did not hesitate to slaughter them to gain power.

Among other things evident in this terrible tale is that polygamy leads to chaos and hatred. The story is cautioning, “Don’t do polygamy.”

King David had at least eight wives (Michal, Abigail, Ahinoam, Eglah, Maacah, Abital, Haggith, and Bathsheba) and ten concubines. Trouble erupts in this “blended” (to put it mildly) family when Absalom (David’s third son, whose mother was Maacah) sought to move to the head of the line of succession. When his older brother Chileab died, only his half-brother Amnon stood in the way. The tension between these royal sons of different mothers grew intense. Amnon raped Absalom’s sister Tamar, and Absalom later had Amnon murdered for it (cf 2 Sam 13).

Absalom fled and over time nourished hatred for his father David, eventually waging a war against him in an attempt to overthrow his power. Absalom is killed in the war, and David can barely forgive himself for his role in his son’s death (2 Sam 18:33). The family intrigue wasn’t over, however.

David’s son Solomon (by Bathsheba, David’s last wife) would eventually become king but only through the machinations of his mother. As David lay dying, his oldest son Adonijah (by Haggith), who was the expected heir (1 Kings 2:15), was proclaimed king in a formal ceremony. Bathsheba conspired with Nathan the Prophet and deceived David into thinking that Adonijah was mounting a rebellion. She also reminded David of a secret promise he had once made to her that Solomon would one day be king. As a result, David intervened and sent word that Solomon would be king. Adonijah fled, returning only after Solomon assured his safety. Despite this he was later killed by Solomon.

What a messy situation! We have sons of different mothers hating one another, wives playing for favor and conspiring behind the scenes, and so forth. Once again, the implicit teaching is this: Don’t do polygamy.

Solomon, it is said, had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Again, nothing but trouble came from this. Scripture says,

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women. … He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord (1 Kings 11:1-6).

The tolerance of pagan religious practices encouraged by these wives, along with other policies, led to great hostility and division in the kingdom. After Solomon’s death, the northern kingdom of Israel seceded from Judah. They were never reunited, and both kingdoms were eventually destroyed by surrounding nations.

Lurking in the mix of this mess is polygamy and this lesson: Don’t do polygamy.

Abraham’s sexual relations with his wife Sarah’s maid, Hagar, while a case of adultery rather than polygamy, also led to serious trouble. Although Hagar became pregnant with Ishmael at Sarah’s behest, Sarah grew jealous and mistreated her, causing her to flee (Gen 16). Hagar eventually returned and gave birth to Ishmael. Later, when Sarah finally bore a child (Isaac), she  decided that Ishmael was a threat and had Abraham drive him and Hagar away (Gen 21).

Ishmael went on to become the patriarch of what we largely call the Arab nations; Isaac’s line would be the Jewish people. The rest, as they say, is history.

Once again, polygamy is lurking behind a whole host of problems. Don’t do polygamy.

So, the Bible does teach on polygamy. Through stories, we learn of its problematic nature. We ought not to be overly simplistic and conclude that polygamy was the only problem or that such tragedies never occur in other settings, but it clearly played a strong role.

It would seem that in the Old Testament God tolerates polygamy, as he does divorce, but nowhere does He approve of it.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus signals a return to God’s original plan and excludes divorce.

Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, unless the marriage is unlawful, and marries another woman commits adultery (Matt 19:8-9).

Have you not read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate (Matt 19:4-6).

Whatever one may argue with regard to the Old Testament’s approach to marriage, Jesus makes it clear that we are going back to plan A: One man and one woman in a stable, lasting, fruitful relationship of mutual support.

Beware, polygamy is the next taboo targeted for overturning. In the wake of the legalization of gay “marriage,” polygamists and their supporters are insisting that the Bible approves of this way of life. Do a web search on “polygamy” and you’ll see many sites devoted to this thinking and to its promotion.

The basic message must be this: While reporting the existence of polygamy, the Bible also describes the consequences, which were nearly always violent. The biblical teaching, therefore, is clear: Don’t do polygamy.

Here are two clips from the movie Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The first one is somewhat humorous, but in the second one things begin to get dark.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard:  The Problems Produced by the Polygamy of the Patriarchs

 

A Battle You Can’t Afford to Win – The Story of Jacob’s Conversion

One of God’s stranger affections is the special love He had for Jacob of the Old Testament. We are reading through this story in daily Mass this week.

According to some, the name Jacob means “grabber” or “usurper.” Even while still in his mother Rebekah’s womb, Jacob wrestled with his twin brother, Esau. Although Esau was born first, Jacob came forth grabbing his brother’s heel, hence his name.

Although he was a “mama’s boy,” Jacob was also a schemer, a trickster, and an outright liar. Rebekah favored Jacob and schemed with him to steal the birthright from Esau by lying to his blind father Isaac and obtaining the blessing under false pretenses.

Esau sought to kill him for this, leading Jacob to flee north to live with Laban, an uncle who was an even greater trickster and schemer than he. For fourteen years Jacob labored for Laban, in the hopes of winning his beloved Rachel, Laban’s daughter. In a wonderful payback, Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Rachel’s “less attractive” sister, Leah, by hiding her appearance at the wedding. Jacob had thought he was marrying Rachel, but when the veil was pulled back … surprise! It would be seven years before Jacob would finally secure Rachel from Laban.

Frankly, Jacob deserved it. He was a schemer and was himself out-schemed by someone more devious than he.

Yet God still seemed to have a heart for Jacob. God loves sinners like you and me as well. In the story of Jacob—a hard case to say the least—God demonstrates that His love is not based on human merit. God knows and loves us long before we are born (cf Jer 1:5). His love is not the result of our merit, but the cause of it.

There came a critical moment in Jacob’s life when God’s love reached down and worked a transformation:

It was a dark and sleepless night in the desert. For reasons too lengthy to describe here, Jacob had reached a point in his life when he realized that he had to try to reconcile with his brother Esau. He understood that this would be risky and that Esau might try to kill him (he did not; they were later to be reconciled beautifully).

Perhaps this was the reason for Jacob’s troubled sleep. Perhaps, too, his desire to reconcile with his brother pleased God. Whatever the reason, though, God reached down to touch Jacob.

We pick up the story at Genesis 32:21

I. DISTRESSED manSo the [peace] offering [to Esau] passed on before him; and he himself lodged that night in the camp. The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day (Gen 32:21-24).

Jacob is distressed and has difficulty sleeping. He has, somewhat willingly, sued for peace with his brother Esau so as to be able to return to his homeland. How his brother will react is unknown to him.

Our sins have a way of catching up with us. If we indulge them, sooner or later we are no longer able to sleep the sleep of the just, and all the promises of sin now become like overdue bills to be paid.

Now that Jacob has come to this distressed and critical place in his life, God goes to work on him, to purify and test him. On a dark and lonely night in the desert, Jacob finds himself alone and afraid, and God will meet him. Note three things about the way God works:

1. God brings Jacob to a place of isolation – This is difficult for God to do. Oh, how we all love distraction, noise, and company. We surround ourselves with so many diversions, usually in an attempt to avoid considering who we are, what we are doing, where we are going, and who God is. So God brings Jacob to a kind of isolation on this dark and sleepless night in the desert. The text says, And Jacob was left alone. It’s time for Jacob to think, time for him to pray and look to deeper issues.

2. God brings Jacob to a place of confrontation – Verse 24 says, and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.

Who is this “man”? The Book of Hosea answers the question and also supplies other details of the event. He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with him—the LORD the God of hosts, the LORD is his name (Hos 12:4-5).

Yes, it is the Lord who wrestles with, who strives with Jacob. God “mixes it up” with Jacob and shakes him up. Here is an image for the spiritual life. Too many today think that God only exists to affirm and console us. He can and does do this, but God has a way of afflicting the comfortable as well as comforting the afflicted. Yes, God needs to wrestle us to the ground at times, to throw us off balance in order to get us to think, to try new things, and to discover strengths we did not know we had.

3. God brings Jacob to a place of desperation – The text says, When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him (Gen 32:25).

It is interesting to consider that God “cannot prevail” over Jacob. Though omnipotent, God will not simply overrule our human will. Thus in striving with Jacob, God can only bring him so far. But God will leave him with a lingering memory of this night and with the lesson that he must learn to lean and to trust.

Jacob is a hard case, so God disables him. By knocking out Jacob’s sciatic muscle, God leaves him in a state in which he must lean on a cane and limp for the rest of his life. Jacob must learn to lean. He will never forget this lesson because he must physically lean from now on.

Thus Jacob, a distressed man on a dark desert night, wrestles with God and learns that the answer to his distress is to strive with God, to walk with Him, to wrestle with the issues in his life. Up until this point, Jacob has not trusted and walked with God. He has schemed, manipulated, and maneuvered his way through life. Now he has learned to lean and to trust.

II. DEPENDENT man – The text next records, Then the man said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

If “the man” is God, as the text of Hosea teaches, then it seems odd that God would ask Jacob to let him go and for Jacob respond, “I will not let you go.” As if a mere man could prevent God from doing anything!

But the request of “the man” may also be understood as a rhetorical device, drawing from Jacob the required response. So the man says, “Let me go!” God wants Jacob (and us) to come to the point at which he (and we) say, “I will not let you go.”

In saying, “I will not let you go,” Jacob is finally saying, in effect, “Don’t go; I need your blessing! Lord, you’re my only hope. I need you; without you I’m sunk!”

God needs to get all of us to this place.

This critical moment has brought Jacob to the insight that he must have God’s blessing, that he wholly depends upon God.

III. DIFFERENT man – The text then says, And the man said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Gen 32:27-28).

Here is the critical moment: Jacob finally owns his name. When his blind father Isaac had asked him his name, Jacob had lied, saying, “I am Esau.”

But after this encounter with God, Jacob finally speaks the truth: “My name is Jacob.” In this response is a kind of confession: “My name is Jacob. My name is deceiver, grabber, usurper, con artist, and shyster”

Thus Jacob makes a confession, acknowledging that all that his name implies of him has been true.

Having received this confession, God wipes the slate clean and gives Jacob a new name, Israel, a name that means, “He who wrestles or strives with God.”

Renamed, Jacob becomes a new man. He is different now; he is dependent. He will walk a new path and walk in a new way: with a humble limp, leaning on the Lord, and striving with Him rather against Him.

And thus Jacob (Israel) wins by losing! God had to break him in order to bless him, to cripple him in order to crown him. Jacob would never be the same again. He would limp for life, always remembering how God blessed him in his brokenness. Scripture says, A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise (Ps 51:17).

Postscript – In the Book of Hebrews, there is a kind of picture of the “new man” Jacob has become: By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph and bowed in worship, leaning on the top of his staff (Heb 11:21). Jacob limped for the rest of his life. He needed a staff to support him. He learned to lean.

Have you learned to lean?

There is a battle you can’t afford to win: the battle with God. Learn to lean and to delight in depending upon God. This is the story of Jacob’s conversion. How about yours?

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Battle You Can’t Afford to Win – The Story of Jacob’s Conversion

Practical Principles for Proclaiming the Kingdom

In the Gospel this Sunday, Jesus gives a number of practical principles for those who would proclaim the Kingdom. Let’s look at each of them in turn.

I. Serious – The text says, At that time the Lord appointed seventy-two others whom he sent ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit. He said to them, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.”

The Lord describes here a very serious situation. There is an abundant harvest, but there are few willing to work at it. Consider the harvest in our own day. Look at the whole human race and think about how many don’t yet know the Lord. There are over 7 billion people on the planet; 1.1 billion are Catholics (many of them lukewarm) and about 750 million are other Christians. This means that more than 2/3 of people on this planet don’t know and worship the Lord Jesus. Here in the U.S., 75% of Catholics don’t even go to Mass.

There are many people today who shrug at this, presuming it’s no big deal because nearly everyone will be saved anyway. Never mind that Jesus said the opposite quite explicitly: many if not most are heading down the road of loss and damnation (e.g. Matt 7:13; Luke 13:24). This myopic presumption and false optimism is unbiblical and, frankly, slothful.

The Second Vatican Council has this to say:

Those can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. But very often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasoning and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention (Lumen Gentium 16).

Note that the council Fathers say that very often people are deceived by the Evil One. Did you notice those words, “very often”? The great mass of “ignorant” humanity is not walking into Heaven. Rather, they are deceived and have let themselves be deceived.

Jesus himself said, This is the judgment: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil (John 3:19).

Yes, the need is urgent. We need to be serious about this. There are many even among our own families and friends who have left the practice of the faith and who are somewhere on the continuum from indifference to outright hostility toward the Holy Faith. We must work to restore them to the Church and to the Lord; otherwise, they are likely to be lost.

Scripture also speaks of many who walk in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed (Eph 4:17-19).

There is work to do, and we must get serious about it. Sadly, too many have not. The decline of the West has happened on our watch. Too many have thought that evangelization is a job for someone else. Welcome to what the silence of the saints has produced.

Note, too, that while this translation says, ask the Lord of the Harvest, the Greek is more emphatic and personal. The Greek word is δεήθητε (deethete, from deomai), which means to beg as if binding oneself. In other words, we are so urgent in this request that we are willing to involve our very self in the solution. This is not a problem just for the Lord or for other people; it is so serious that I am willing to go myself! Do you feel this way about evangelization? It’s time to get serious; many are being lost!

II. Sobriety – The text says, Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.

We must be cognizant that we are being sent into a word that is hostile to the faith. We should not despair or be dismissive of this hostility; we must be sober and clear about it.

Yes, there is an enemy. He is organized, influential, and powerful. Nevertheless, we are not counseled to fear, but to sobriety. We must be aware, but unafraid. Scripture says,

      • And this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world (1 John 4:3 -4).
      • Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over (Ps 23:4-5).
      • But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be a time for you to bear testimony. Settle it therefore in your minds, not to meditate beforehand how to answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict (Luke 21:12-15).
      • For the accuser (Satan) of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night (Rev 12:10).

Therefore, we must be sober without being afraid or discouraged. There is an enemy and the conflict is real, but the victory is already ours.

And old song says,

Harder yet may be the fight,
Right may often yield to might,
Wickedness awhile may reign,
Satan’s cause may seem to gain;
There is a God that rules above,
With hand of power and heart of love,
If I am right He’ll fight my battle,
I shall have peace some day.

III. Serenity – The text says, Into whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this household.” If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you. … Whatever town you enter and they do not receive you, go out into the streets and say, “The dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we shake off against you.” Yet know this: the kingdom of God is at hand. I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for that town.

Note how the Lord counsels us to shake off the dust in the face of rejection. We ought not to take it personally. We ought to remember that it is Jesus they are rejecting, not us. Further, we ought to be serene in the knowledge that just because someone is angry at us, it does not mean that we have done anything wrong.

Yes, we are to be serene and secure in the truth of the message and not consumed with how people react. We need not be strident or argumentative, we don’t have to raise our voices, we don’t need to be fearful, angry, or resentful. All we need to do is to preach the truth serenely and leave the judgment up to God.

IV. Simplicity – The text says, Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals; and greet no one along the way.

One of the things that keeps many of us from fully preaching the Kingdom is that we are encumber by so many things and so many activities. The Lord tells us to travel light, for then we shall be unencumbered, available, and free. Too often today, spiritual truths are neglected and crowded out by worldly concerns. Parents will make sure to get their kids to the soccer game, but Sunday school and Mass are neglected. Likewise, many of us are too wealthy, too invested in this world. As a result, we are not free to preach because we feel we have too much to lose.

The Lord calls us to simplicity in three areas:

        • Purse – The Lord says to carry no moneybag. Riches root us in this world and make us slaves of its ways. Riches are bondage; poverty (freedom from greed) is a kind of freedom, because those who are poorer have less to lose. Scripture says, But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs (1 Timothy 6:9-10).
        • Possessions – The Lord says to carry no sack, no extra sandals. We are encouraged to resist the tendency to accumulate possessions. These things weigh us down. On account of them we are forever caught up with acquiring the latest fashions, the most recent upgrades, and the most deluxe models. And then all this stuff requires insurance and maintenance. Too much stuff roots us in the world and distracts us from more essential things. Too much stuff, will wear you out. Don’t carry around too much stuff. The Lord advises: travel light; simplify. Scripture says, Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it (Proverbs 15:16).
        • People – The text says to greet no one along the way. We have to admit that some folks in our life do not help us in our Christian walk or duty. Instead, they hinder us, tempt us, or simply get us to focus on foolish and passing things. In the Gospel passage, the Lord has something for the seventy-two to do and He wants them to get there and do it. This is not a time to stop along the way and chat with every passerby. The same is true for us. We ought to be careful of the company we keep and ponder if our friends and acquaintances help us or hinder us in our task of proclaiming the Kingdom. Scripture warns, Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals” (1 Cor 15:33). And again, I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men … I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one (1 Cor 5:9).

Thus the Lord counsels us to travel light, to simplify. Our many possessions weigh us down and make life difficult. Look at the opulence of today, yet notice all the stress. Simplify; travel light. Also, avoid complicating and compromising relationships.

V. Stability – The Lord says, Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered to you, for the laborer deserves his payment. Do not move about from one house to another.

In other words, find out where home is, where the Lord wants you, and then stay there. Stop all this modern running around. Develop in-depth relationships and stability. In the old days, long-term relationships served as the basis for the communication of the truths of the faith, not just between individuals, but across generations and in close-knit communities. In today’s mobile society, things tend to be more shallow.

The Lord counsels that we stay close to home, that we frequent holy places. We ought to do everything we can to find stability and roots. It is in stable contexts and deep roots, deep relationships, that the Gospel is best preached. Many parents today seldom have dinner with their children. Indeed, with all the running around there is little time left to teach or preach the faith!

Scripture warns,

      • She is loud and wayward, for her feet do not stay at home; now in the street, now in the market (Proverbs 7:11-12).
      • Like a bird that strays from its nest, is a man who strays from his home (Proverbs 27:8)

VI. Sensitivity – Jesus says, Whatever town you enter and they welcome you, eat what is set before you, cure the sick in it and say to them, “The kingdom of God is at hand for you.”
Be gracious and kind. Simple human kindness and a gracious demeanor go a long way toward opening doors for the Gospel. Eat what is set before you. In other words, wherever possible reverence the local culture; build on common ground; find and affirm what is right. Don’t just be the critic. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Sure there are ways we can be gracious. Little kindnesses are long remembered and pave the way for trust and openness.

That the sick should be cured is clear in itself. But in a more extended sense, we see how kindness, patience, and understanding are also healing. We must speak the truth, but we must learn to speak it in love, not merely in confrontation or harsh criticism.

Simple kindness and sensitivity are counseled here: eat what is set before you.

VII. Soul Saving Joy – The text says, The seventy-two returned rejoicing, and said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” Jesus said, “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky. Behold, I have given you the power to ‘tread upon serpents’ and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”

They have the joy of success that day. There will be other days of rejection and even martyrdom. That’s why Jesus counsels us to have a deeper source of joy: merely that they have been called and have their names written in Heaven.

There is no greater evidence to the truth of our faith than joyful and transformed Christians. Mother Theresa said, “Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.”

Thus the Lord counsels that we cultivate joy at what He is doing for us, how He is delivering us and giving us power over the demons in our life. There is no greater joy than to remember what the Lord has done for us, that He has saved us and written our names in Heaven. Yes, remember! Have so present in your mind and heart what the Lord has done for you so that you are grateful, joyful, and different! This is soul-saving joy, a joy that will save your soul and the souls of others as well.

Here, then, are seven principles for proclaiming the Kingdom. Now let’s get serious; there’s work to be done; many are being lost. It’s time to cast our nets!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Practical Principles for Proclaiming the Kingdom

On the Cosmology of Fireworks

One of the great paradoxes of creation and our existence in God’s world is that many blessings are unlocked by explosive, even violent, forces. The cosmos itself is hurtling outward in a massive explosion. Here we are, living part way through that explosion.

When I consider the fireworks on the Fourth of July, I often think that each of those beautiful, fiery explosions is a miniature replica of the cosmos. Everywhere in the universe, the burning embers we call stars and galaxies glow brightly as they hurtle outward at close to one hundred million miles per hour. Yes, from one great singularity, God sent the power of His fiery, creative love expanding outward, giving life, and seeming almost limitless. The cosmos is unimaginably large, but its creator is infinitely large.

Even here on Earth, a relatively cool and stable bit of dust compared to the Sun, we stand upon a thin crust of land floating over an explosive sea of molten, fiery rock. The Book of Job says,

As for the earth, out of it comes bread; Yet underneath it is turned up as it were by fire (Job 28:5).

This fiery cauldron produces the rich soil in which we grow our very bread. The smoke and gases of the fires provide essential ingredients of the atmosphere that sustains us. The molten fires beneath us also create a magnetic field that envelops Earth and deflects the most harmful of the Sun’s rays.

Yes, all around us there is fire with its explosive violence, yet from it come life and every good gift.

To small creatures like us, God’s expansive love can seem almost violent. Indeed, there are terrifying experiences near volcanos and from solar bursts that remind us that love is both glorious and unnerving. It is an awesome thing to fall into the hands of a living God (Heb 10:31).

In some of our greatest human works, we too use violent means. The blades of our plows cut into the earth, violently overturning it. We raise animals and then lead them to slaughter for food and/or clothing. We break eggs to make omelets. We stoke fires to cook our food and warm our homes. We smelt iron and other ore we violently cut from the earth. Even as we drive about in our cars, the ignition of the fuel/air mixture in the engine causes explosions, the energy from which is ultimately directed toward propelling the vehicle.

Violent though much of this is, we do these things (at least in our best moments) as acts of love and creativeness. By them we bring light, warmth, and food. We build and craft; we move products and people to help and bless.

Yes, there is a paradoxical “violence” that comes from the fiery heat of love and creativity. The following is an excerpt from Bianco da Siena’s 14th century hymn to the Holy Spirit, “Come Down, O Love Divine”:

Come down, O Love divine,
seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn,
till earthly passions turn
to dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
and let thy glorious light
shine ever on my sight,
and clothe me round, the while my path illuming
.

Fire—can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Let the fire burn; let the seemingly transformative “violence” have its way. It makes a kind of paradoxical sense to us living in a universe that is midway through its fiery, expansive explosion of God’s love and creativity.

Disclaimer: I am not affirming gratuitous violence for selfish and/or merely destructive ends. The term “violence” is used here in a qualified manner, as an analogy to convey the transformative and creative power of love phenomenologically.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On the Cosmology of Fireworks

Finding the Church in a Bach Fugue

Many of you have likely read the classic description of the Church from the 1951 novel Dan England and the Noonday Devil, by Myles Connolly. It is a wonderful reminder that the Church is not an institution, but a Body, made up of members who, each in his own unique way, give witness to the one Body, which is Christ. Here is an excerpt from the book:

What is the Church?

The Church to me is all important things everywhere. It is authority and guidance. It is love and inspiration. It is hope and assurance. It is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It is our Lady and St. Joseph. It is St. Peter and Pius XII. It is the bishop and the pastor. It is the catechism and it is our mother leaning over the crib teaching us our evening prayers. It is the cathedral at Chartres and the cross-tipped hut on Ulithi. It is the martyrs in the Colosseum and the martyrs in Uganda, the martyrs at Tyburn and the martyrs at Nagasaki. It is the wrinkled old nun and the eager-eyed postulant. It is the radiant face of the young priest saying his first Mass, and the sleepy boy acolyte with his soiled white sneakers showing under his black cassock….

It is the spire glimpsed from a train window and the cruciform miniature of a church seen far below on the earth from an airplane. It is six o’clock Mass with its handful of unknown saints at the communion rail in the gray dark and it is pontifical High Mass with its crowds and glowing grandeur in St. Peter’s….It is the Sistine Choir and it is the May procession of Chinese children singing the Regina Coeli in Peking.

It is the Carthusian at prime on Monte Allegro and the Jesuit teaching epistemology in Tokyo. It is the Scheutveld Father fighting sleeping sickness in the Congo and the Redemptorist fighting prejudice in Vermont. It is the Benedictine, the Augustinian, the Passionist, the Dominican, the Franciscan. It is all religious and especially the great unnamed Order of the Parish Priest.

It is the Carmelite Sister lighting the tapers for vespers in the drear cold of Iceland and the Sister of Notre Dame de Namur making veils for First Communion in Kwango. It is the Vincentian Sister nursing a Negro Baptist dying of cancer in Alabama and the Maryknoll Sister facing a Communist commissar in Manchuria. It is the White Sister teaching the Arabs carpetmaking in the Sahara and the Good Shepherd Sister in St. Louis giving sanctuary to a derelict child, a home to a lamb who was lost. It is the Little Sister of the Poor salving the sores of a forgotten old man in Marseilles, the Grey Sister serving the destitute in Haiti, the Blessed Sacrament Sister helping a young Negro write poetry in New Orleans. It is the Sister of Charity… It is all the Sisters everywhere.

It is the crippled woman who keeps fresh flowers before our Lady’s altar and the young woman catechist who teaches the barefooted neophytes in the distant hills. It is the girl who gives up her bridge game to drive the Sisters to the prisons and the homes of the poor, and it is the woman who goes from door to door begging for help for the orphanage. It is the proud mother of the priest and the heartbroken mother of the criminal. It is all mothers and sisters everywhere who weep and suffer and pray that sons and brothers may keep the Faith.

….It is the bad sermon and the good, the false vocation and the true. It is the tall young man who says the Stations of the Cross every evening and it is the father of ten who wheels the sick to Mass every Sunday morning at the County Hospital.

It is St. Martin and Martin de Porres, St. Augustine and St. Phocas, Gregory the Great and Gregory Thaumaturgus, St. Ambrose and Charles de Foucauld, St. Ignatius and Ignatius the Martyr, St. Thomas More and St. Barnabas. It is St. Teresa and St. Philomena, Joan of Arc and St. Winefride, St. Agnes and St. Mary Euphrasia. It is all the saints, ancient and new, named and unnamed, and all the sinners.

It is the bursting out of the Gloria on Holy Saturday and the dim crib at dawn Mass on Christmas. It is the rose vestments on Laetare Sunday and the blue overalls of the priest working with the laborers in a mine in the Ruhr.

It is the shiny, new shoes and reverent faces of the June bride and groom kneeling before the white-flowered altar at nuptial Mass, and it is the pale, troubled young mother at the baptismal font, her joy mingled with distress as she watches her first-born wail its protest against the sacramental water. It is the long, shadowy, uneven line of penitents waiting outside the confessional in the dusk of a wintry afternoon, each separate and solemnly alone with his sins, and it is the stooped figure of a priest, silhouetted against the headlights of a police car in the darkness of the highway as he says the last prayers over a broken body lying on the pavement beside a shattered automobile.

It is the Magnificat and it is grace before meals. It is the worn missal and the chipped statue of St. Anthony, the poor box and the cracked church bell. It is peace and truth and salvation. It is the Door through which I entered into the Faith and the Door through which I shall leave, please God, for eternity.

So there it is: The Church. Somewhere in this picture is you, sharing your gift and serving in your role. The Church is Christ. And all of us who are baptized are baptized into Christ, members of His Body.

Somehow I sense the rhythm of a Bach fugue as I read the description above. You probably think I’m stretching things, but consider this:

In the video below, an organist plays Bach’s Fugue in C Major. As with any musical fugue, the organist begins by announcing the theme, playing it with his right hand. Soon enough the left hand answers and eventually the feet play the theme in the pedal. The fugue then takes the theme through a series of mathematical progressions. Eighth notes become 16th notes and then even 32nd notes, but the basic theme is always being developed.

Now think of the organist as Christ, the Head of the Body, and the organ as the Body of Christ. The organ, like any body, has many parts. Because the purpose of an organ is to make sounds, the different pipes are used to make different sounds. There are diapasons, the reeds, the flutes, and the string pipes. The reeds are made up of various sounds like the trumpet, oboe, and vox humana. The string pipes make different sounds as well, such as viola, salicional, and dulciana. The flutes also come in many varieties as do the diapasons. There are wonderful mixtures that give brightness. The deep, low notes of the pedal, sometimes as low as the 32′ contra Bombarde, make the whole building shake. This, too, is an image of the Church. Christ is able to make beautiful music with this wonderful variety.

How does Jesus make this music? Like an organist playing a fugue, Jesus announces the basic theme that underlies every other aspect of the song. This theme is the truth of the Gospel. Every voice of the Church takes up that theme and sings it out in its own sound, using its own gift—but it is Christ who plays. Jesus expands and enriches the theme in a kind of development of doctrine that He leads the Church to proclaim. Rich diverse sounds develop and build thematically, but there is always the basic theme, the fundamental truth.

Yes, here is an image of the Church in a Bach fugue and in a virtuoso organist making beautiful music through unity with a wondrous instrument.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Finding the Church in a Bach Fugue

Paradoxes of Freedom (part 3 of 3): The Freedom of Being a Servant

This is the final post in a series of three on some of the paradoxes of true freedom.

Many in the modern world view freedom in terms of being free from things and people, or from truths and norms. The Christian, biblical understanding, however, is that freedom is for something. In the first post of this series we discussed the paradoxical idea that true freedom is the capacity to obey God. In the second, we noted that true freedom cannot exist or be workable unless it is limited.

In today’s post we will discuss two additional paradoxes of true freedom. I will limit my freedom to write extensively and treat them only briefly so that you are free to get to your cookout sooner!

The third paradox of true freedom is that it often exists as a result of prior constraint.

    • I am free to play the piano today only because as a child I limited my freedom to go out and play, instead disciplining myself to devote considerable time to practice.
    • I am free to spend money today only because as a younger man I constrained my freedom to do as I pleased, instead working to earn money and then saving it rather than spending it.
    • I am healthy and in good physical condition today only because I have limited my food intake and exercised regularly over the years.

The final paradox that we will discuss in this series is that we are only free by becoming slaves and servants of God. This is related to the paradox we pondered in the first post (that true freedom is the capacity to obey God), but it develops the fruits of this obedience.

    • So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:36).
    • Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:32).
    • But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness …. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life (Romans 6:17-20).
    • Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God (1 Peter 2:16).

Conclusion: the absolute, detached freedom imagined by the world does not exist. Insisting on freedom without any connection to what is good and true does not free; it enslaves. True freedom exists within boundaries. Some things must be held constant and unyielding if there is to be freedom. Without rules, freedom breaks down and is crushed by anarchy, chaos, and power struggles. In the end, what makes us truly free is obeying the Father. Anything less is the slavery of sin.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Paradoxes of Freedom (part 3 of 3): The Freedom of Being a Servant

Paradoxes of Freedom (part 2 of 3): True Freedom Is Limited

This is the second in a series of three posts on the often-paradoxical characteristics of true freedom.

Another one of the seeming paradoxes of true freedom is that it cannot be had unless it is limited. Absolute freedom leads to an anarchy in which no one is really free to act. Consider that we would not be free to drive if there were no traffic laws. The ensuing chaos would make driving extremely difficult—and dangerous! The freedom to drive, to come and go, depends upon us limiting our freedom to drive however we please; we cooperate through obedience to agreed-upon laws of the road.

I am writing this post in English. I appreciate the freedom we have to communicate and debate. However, my freedom to communicate with you as well as your freedom to comprehend me are contingent upon me limiting myself by obeying the rules of English grammar, syntax, and semantics. Consider these “sentences”:

Horse gravy not trap if said approach acre world existential yet sweater fire.

dasJja, gyu4.uwe %&^% ]*UVO(&, ixf gauy ga(&68Gn9 (!*&r(*wt(3

What, can’t you read? You don’t understand? Clearly, when I exercise absolute freedom neither of us is really free.

So, the paradox of freedom is that we can only experience it by accepting constraints upon it. Without limits, we are hindered from acting freely.

Jesus and freedom – Here, too, is an insight into what Jesus means when he says, If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:31-32). Note the use of the word “if” at the beginning. Jesus is saying that if we limit ourselves to holding to His teaching, we will be truly free. Limiting oneself, not merely doing what one pleases, is what unlocks the freedom that Jesus offers.

See how different this is from how many today conceive of freedom; they hold that the announcement of biblical truth threatens freedom! To such libertines, any limit is an attack on freedom. Jesus says just the opposite. The truth is a set of propositions that limits us to some extent. If “A” is true, then “not A” is false. I must accept the truth and base my life on it to enjoy its freeing power. The paradoxical result is that the propositions of the truth of God’s teaching do not limit our freedom so much as enhance it.

Image – Absolute freedom is not really freedom at all. It is a state of chaos in which no one can really move. Every ancient city had walls, but they were not so much prison walls as defending walls. One had to limit oneself to staying within the walls to enjoy their protection, but inside there was great freedom, for one was not constantly fighting off enemies or living in fearful vigilance. People were freed for other pursuits but only within the walls.

Those who claim that the truth of the gospel limits their freedom might consider the result of rejecting those limits. As we discussed in yesterday’s post, the libertine world, which demands to live apart from God’s truth, does not seem very free. Addictions, compulsions, neuroses, and high levels of stress are widespread in the modern West. We have seen the crumbling of the nuclear family due to the seeming inability of so many people to establish and keep a lasting commitment. An adolescent obsession with sex has led to promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, single mothers/absent fathers, and abortion. Greed and addiction to wealth enslave many in a kind of financial bondage; they cannot afford the lifestyle their passions demand, so they are deep in debt and still unsatisfied. The so-called freedom of the modern world apart from the truth of the gospel is far from evident. It looks a lot more like slavery. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says rather plainly,

The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin” (CCC # 1733).

In the end, the paradox proves itself. Only limited freedom is true freedom. Demands for absolute freedom lead to bondage.

This creative video features an interview that illustrates how we are free to communicate only within the constraints of grammar and the rules of language.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Paradoxes of Freedom (part 2 of 3): True Freedom Is Limited

Paradoxes of Freedom (part 1 of 3): True Freedom Is Found in Obedience

As Independence Day approaches, we do well to ponder some of the characteristics of true freedom, which is to be distinguished from the false notion of freedom espoused by many today. Today’s post is the first in a series of three on this topic.

Let’s begin by noting that most people in modern times speak of freedom in a detached sense. To them, freedom  means the ability to do whatever they please with few if any limits. This libertine, often-licentious notion of freedom more often than not leads to addiction and oppression.

For many in the world, then, freedom is always from something, but for a Christian, freedom is always for something.

The Christian, biblical understanding of freedom is the capacity, the ability, to obey God. Pairing freedom and obedience seems paradoxical to many in the world!

Abusing our freedom by focusing it on sin leads to slavery and addiction to sin. Jesus said, Whoever sins is the slave of sin (Jn 8:34). Indeed, among the great struggles of this modern age is addiction. Freely indulging our desires to excess often leads to them becoming necessities that soon come to possess us.

Indulging sinful desires also facilitates a growing attitude that sin is inevitable and that the call to biblical morality is overly idealistic, even impossible. Yes, expecting people to moderate their passions and desires, to live soberly and chastely, and to uphold marriage vows or to live in perpetual continence if not married—all of which were a short time ago considered normal moral imperatives—is now seen as oppressive, triggering, bigoted, hateful, and sometimes even criminal.

This certainly doesn’t sound like freedom to me. Rather, these false notions put forth seem like they are coming from people who are trapped by their sinful drives. The language used bespeaks incapacity, sloth, and a kind of despair that demands that we define sin and deviancy down. In this way Jesus words are proved true: Whoever sins is a slave of sin (Jn 8:34).

St. Paul adds this:

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. Despairing and having lost all sense of shame, they have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity, with a craving for more. But this is not the way you came to know Christ … Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor (Eph 4:17-19, 25).

This is why the Christian notion of liberty and freedom is so important for us to get right: True freedom is the capacity, the ability, to obey God. In obeying God, we are truly free because each of us becomes the man or woman He created us to be. The very nature He gave us is perfected by the freeing obedience of faith.

What the world calls freedom is actually a licentiousness that approves many sins. It becomes a slavery that says, “I can’t, and I won’t.” It is a false liberty because it implicitly protests its inability to live out even the most ordinary moral norms and truths. It is a wolf in the sheep’s clothing of tolerance, diversity, acceptance, and false compassion. Liberty was not found in the fields of Woodstock or on the streets of Haight-Ashbury. The “Summer of Love” ushered in innumerable crosses: sexually transmitted diseases, single mothers/absent fathers, abortion, the hyper-sexualization of children, and recently the many cries of sexual abuse and harassment from the #MeToo movement. There’s no freedom here, just a lot of out-of-control behavior leading to sorrow, alienation, and even death through the horror of abortion.

Does this sound like freedom? Not to me!

Jesus counsels the remedy:

“If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”… So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed (Jn 8:31-32, 35).

True freedom is found in the paradox of obedience to the Lord, who is Truth. Beware the false freedom that enslaves. Come to Him; obey Him through grace and find the true and glorious freedom of the children of God.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Paradoxes of Freedom (part 1 of 3): True Freedom Is Found in Obedience